Q&A with Peter Koonce, Portland’s Signals Guy

Why are there so many different types of audible signals?” The person in charge of Portland’s traffic signals answers questions from an advocate for the blind. Peter Koonce, Portland’s Signals and Street Lighting Division Manager responds to 3 specific questions from Jim Jackson, a member of the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.

Q: Why are there so many different types of audible signals?

A: There are different types because the people writing the standards (public officials and industry vendors) are doing this sometimes on a volunteer basis with some modest support from the Federal Highway Administration and the National Cooperative Research Program. It is done with support from State DOTs that approve the research agenda. This takes time. Tests are done and studies conducted through students and research teams that are not processed quickly by practitioners. Vendors also invest in new technology but these are not large companies for the most part that can retool their systems easily.

The research concepts have changed as technology has over the past 15-20 years. The latest thinking is how to incorporate Smart phones that are very usable and conceivable, whereas 10 years ago that future wasn’t so clear. Traffic signal technology often lasts 30 years so the evolution is very slow and products as installed remain on street for a long time if it isn’t damaged.

Researchers like Janet Barlow (http://accessforblind.org) have done some work over time informed by tests. The City has been a long time supporter of Janet’s work nationally with in kind support.

Q:  Does it cost more to add the name of the street to an audible signal? (like “Cross Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd”)

A: Yes, there is effort in maintaining that equipment, but that is the City’s standard. Some agencies go for cheaper devices. Some practitioners argue against the audible because of the difficulty in maintaining those types of buttons. You have to have staff learn how to program them.

Q: Some signals are both audible and vibrate, which works for both deaf and blind road users. Why is this not the universal standard?

A: It is currently for the City of Portland. The Federal Highway Administration actually doesn’t require pedestrian signals at every crossing still. This was a debate in this past years meeting and several progressive engineers could not believe this was still possible.

We do then have to install poles for the buttons which is something the engineers get criticized about because the poles are in the sidewalk.